Wednesday, 23 February 2022

The cultural habits… of the Portuguese cultural organisations


“Many people are uncomfortable with the label ‘the arts’ and associate it only with either the visual arts or ‘high art’, such as ballet or opera. (…) At the same time, most people in this country have active cultural lives and value opportunities to be creative.” These two sentences were not taken from the Gulbenkian Foundation's study on the cultural habits of the Portuguese. They were taken from Arts Council England´s Let's Create document, which presents its strategy for the 2020-2030 decade. In the Portuguese context, the former sentence sounds very familiar; the Gulbenkian study does not confirm the latter, but it could be a wish. Will it…?

In the United Kingdom, and specifically in England, it didn’t remain a simple wish. In the 1950s, academic Raymond Williams, when advocating for greater investment in the arts (and also in adult learning), clarified that this should not only serve to preserve and extend the great national institutions, but also to welcome, encourage and foster the tendencies to regional recreation, which were beginning to show themselves, “for culture is ordinary, you should not have to go to London to find it”. Many years later, in the 21st century, cultural projects are being developed and focus on the citizen, any citizen, wherever he or she is. Creative People and Places (supported by Arts Council England) aims to create conditions for people to choose, create and take part in brilliant art experiences in the places where they live. Fun Palaces (whose founder Stella Duffy we had the opportunity to meet in 2020 at the Gulbenkian Foundation's This is Partis event) works in different territories so that everyone can have an opinion on what counts as culture, where it happens, who makes it and who enjoys it. This is precisely what the 2017 King's College London study Towards cultural democracy advocated:promoting cultural capabilities for everyone advocated: “...substantial social freedom to create versions of culture; (...) real, concrete freedom to choose what culture to make, as well as what culture to appreciate; (…) opportunities to see and hear things; new things, old things, strange things, beautiful things, fun things and fericious things; things that mobilize, confuse and move; things that comfort and things that inspire.”

Thus, we reached the year 2020, for the Arts Council England to define as one of the objectives of its strategy for the next decade “to value the creative potential in each of us, provide communities in every corner of the country with more opportunities to enjoy culture, and celebrate greatness of every kind.” It took a long time (a really long time) and we still have to wait to see what will happen in concrete terms. But the country, its cultural sector, understood the need to go beyond the “democratisation of culture” and focus on cultural democracy.

I like the so-called “visitor studies” in our field. I don’t think we have enough of them. We tend to be guided by our intuitions, empirical convictions, exchanges of opinions with colleagues. I do not undervalue these factors, but we also need more concrete and objective data, more detailed, associated to different parametres, which would allow us to think better about our work and make more informed decisions. In this sense, I am very happy with the study commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on the cultural habits of the Portuguese. It didn't hold any surprises for me, though; unfortunately, neither in what concerns many of the first reactions to the results presented.

In 2013, the situation was very similar with the Eurobarometre results on access and cultural participation of EU citizens (I wrote about it here). I felt that some of our reactions, reactions from those who work in the cultural sector, were as worrying (or perhaps even more) than the results themselves. Now, the same thing is happening.

Some commentators, disappointed or even angry with the uncultured, uninterested or ignorant Portuguese, question whether we should go out to the streets to get people and bring them in. Others defend the opposite, that we should take what we have and go out into the streets. Few question what it is that we really want to share? Why? What relevance do the Portuguese see in it? In fact, the word “relevance” appears twice in the Gulbenkian study, but never associated with the cultural offer (it appears once associated with education and once with sociability). However, it should be a central point when analysing the results of the study (and for those who have some difficulty in defining “relevance”, Nina Simon's book The art of relevance is a good starting point).

I get the feeling that we want to foist something on the Portuguese. It doesn't matter who they are, where they live, what they think about, what they yearn to do or discuss. We plan, and programme, “in spite” of them. We pout when they say they have no interest in what we propose (or, worse, do not have the knowledge to appreciate what we propose…). Ticket prices are seen as a lifeline (“they don't come because it's expensive”). Anything but questioning what we do, how and why.

The media makes its interpretations and chooses titles such as “A lot of television and cell phone, few books and museums”. So prejudiced, so limiting and with so much impact on the simplified conclusions that many people will draw from the results. I remember Access Culture organising a debate in 2020 with colleagues, cultural professionals, who grew up in rural areas. All of them spoke of the importance of television in their lives, in everything they got to know, in everything they were able to imagine. The problem is not the medium itself (and that goes for the cell phone too). Our questioning has to go a little further.

The authors of the study state that, in order to understand the roots of poor attendance in cultural practices, they also asked respondents about the reasons they stay away from them. However, “lack of time”, “lack of money”, “lack of interest”, just like that, do not reveal what lies often behind these statements. The “it's expensive” can hide something like “it's so big, so beautiful, it's not for me” (I'm quoting a real person). The “I have no interest” or “I don't have the knowledge to understand” are references that we must look into, that is, if we have the courage to confront what they reveal about the way we communicate. The “I am not well dressed to visit the exhibition” is a real, very real, factor. We also have the “lack of time”, also invoked by those who work in Culture. A reality that the pandemic allowed us to question intensely, but… it's over.

Once again, it is clear to me that we are not willing to question ourselves. Why carry out studies if we are not prepared to act on them? Why carry out studies if we are going to spend a few days fuming, only to go back to what we’ve always done, as we’ve always done it, blaming the Portuguese, Salazar (unavoidable reference in these discussions), the school…?

“All cultural policy is centred on the supply, that is, on artists and the structures that support them. But we didn't know the consequences of this in terms of demand”, said Miguel Lobo Antunes at the press conference. It’s true, but I believe we also knew the consequence. In fact, this same cultural policy, when thinking about the “recipients” of the offer, does not go beyond the “digital” and free admissions, the so-called “democratisation” - or “foisting” (in this 2016 post, I reflected on the government’s programme for culture).

The day before the study was presented, our Brazilian colleague Marta Porto shared with me an article from a newspaper in her country entitled 'Go back where you came from’,‘Our colour is white’, racists say in Portugal, which began with a reference to the beating of an 11-year-old Brazilian student in her school courtyard in Portugal. Marta asked me: "How are Portuguese museums and programs dealing with the growing xenophobia in Portugal?" My answer was direct and short: they don't. As they do not deal with many other matters, small and large, serious and also happy. You could tell me “But don't you know project a, b, c…?”. I know some and, of course, I don't know many others. But what is at stake here is the positioning of an entire sector in relation to life and people, this land and the world. If we want to question the relationship of the Portuguese with “Culture”, we must start with an honest self-questioning. Try to answer the uncomfortable question “Why do we do what we do?”; and also “What is our relevance?”. What we would really need now is a study on the cultural habits of cultural organisations themselves. What can the Portuguese expect of them? Of us?

Further readings

Curating the discomfort

Still on this blog

Where are the opportunities? About the Arts Council England's new strategy


Looking for sandy ground

Government reflections on access to culture

A national tragedy: what does “Culture” have to do with it?

The Louvre, my son and I

Opera and the City

Don’t shush me!

The industry of the vast minorities

On public value

We are for people. Or... are we?

Ministry of Culture: Which culture? Whose culture?

What can make the difference?

Crise oblige?(ii) Programming challenges

To be or not to be (free on Sundays)? That’s not the question

The difference between ‘more’ and ‘diverse’

Changes: are we paying enough attention?

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